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July 22, 2014

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ELECTION 2008:

Negative ad strategy may be holding sway

Porter’s relentless — and misleading — criticism of Titus has some voters convinced

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Sam Morris

State Sen. Dina Titus debates her opponent, Rep. Jon Porter, last week. The two 3rd Congressional District candidates will debate again this evening.

As Rep. Jon Porter’s campaign for a fourth term in Congress enters its final days, it is proving to be a remarkably simple one. Instead of touting his accomplishments in Congress, Porter is relying almost exclusively on a small set of misleading and negative advertisements about his opponent.

It is apparently working.

The advertisements accuse his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, of “double dipping,” collecting a salary as a university professor and as a state senator.

In fact, Titus has always taken unpaid leave when serving in the Legislature.

The spot, beamed throughout Southern Nevada, goes on to say Titus will raise taxes to pay for her “shady schemes,” which is not defined but apparently is another reference to her “double dipping.”

The “shady schemes” line stems from a recognition that while voters will support reasonable taxes for important public services such as schools, hospitals and roads, they’ll recoil from a politician enriching herself.

The ads also attack Titus for voting to increase her legislative pension in 1989, a vote in which she joined a majority of the Legislature. However, Titus voted with the majority again when lawmakers swiftly voted to repeal the increase.

Las Vegas Sun interviews with early voters, campaign volunteers and independent analysts show the ad is successfully sullying Titus and giving Porter new momentum.

The two face off in a debate at 9 tonight on Vegas PBS. E-mails and phone calls to the Porter campaign by the Sun were not returned Wednesday.

Even some early voters who cast ballots for Sen. Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, said they didn’t vote for Titus.

Kimberly Hallett, for instance, voted for Obama and the Green Party candidate for Congress. “Titus is corrupt and the other is a Republican. I’ve seen the campaign ads about the tax raises,” she said.

Just six weeks ago, before Porter began running the ads, he seemed in some trouble, with several measurements pointing to a Titus advantage. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by 30,000 voters, and Titus had united her party behind her and was raising money at a healthy clip.

The winds have shifted in Porter’s direction since he began his ad onslaught.

“An incumbent pronounced dead a week out is dead,” said David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “An incumbent pronounced dead a month out has some time.”

In recognition of the effectiveness of the ad campaign, analysts at the Rothenberg Political Report moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up/tilts Democratic,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the report.

“They are driving up her unfavorables and giving him a chance to be reelected in difficult circumstances,” Gonzales said.

A Republican operative, granted anonymity to speak freely about the race, said the political landscape is awful for Republicans, but added that party committees and outside groups will gladly take a competent campaign — such as Porter’s — in a bad environment rather than an incompetent campaign in a friendly environment.

Indeed, outside groups are stepping in to help Porter, a sign they’re concerned about his survival but confident in his campaign’s effectiveness.

The National Republican Campaign Committee just bought $447,000 worth of airtime for an ad that attacks Titus for voting to raise taxes in 2003. The tax hike passed with bipartisan approval and was signed by then-Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Freedom’s Watch, an outside expenditure group backed by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, also released an ad, with a patient on an operating table and doctors and nurses, presumably played by actors, saying, “Colitis? Hepatitis? Diverticulitis?”

That’s followed by “No, Dina Titus!” and another attack on her tax record. Titus’ legislative career has spanned the fiscal crises of both 1991 and 2003, when bipartisan majorities passed tax hikes.

Although Democrats have outnumbered Republicans 2-1 in the number of early voters in the district, reactions of some Obama voters can only be concerning the Titus campaign.

Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the district, but 80,000 voters do not affiliate with either of the two major parties and would seem to be up for grabs. Historically, Nevadans have tended to lean libertarian and reject taxes.

Titus is also facing another challenge: She had to withstand a barrage of attacks — also costing millions of dollars — during her 2006 race for governor.

All told, Southern Nevada voters have consumed hours of paid negative messages about Titus, which can be difficult to combat.

Gonzales said the 2006 campaign could have a slight upside, if voters have buyers’ remorse about her opponent, Gov. Jim Gibbons, who’s been plagued by scandal and is deeply unpopular.

For his part, Porter has run the campaign as he has in the past, largely below the radar while his advertising team destroys his opponent.

The Sun asked the Porter campaign a week ago for a schedule of campaign events. “I will let you know if anything is open to press,” a spokesman replied, but hasn’t replied since. Porter appeared at a rally for vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Tuesday.

Sun reporters Lisa Mascaro and Alexandra Berzon contributed to this report.

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